Posted by: istop4books | March 7, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

On a scale from one to ten, I would need two different numbers to give to this book. The first 150 pages or so would get a resounding 2. The next 150 pages or so would get a 7. That doesn’t make the book worthy of a 4.5 – because the beginning of the book is so damn awful and the end of the book, while not great, isn’t worthy of such a small number either.

And I must say that lately, the larger the acclaim for a book, the less I like it. Perhaps I’m the mistaken one who cannot appreciate a decent piece of literature – or maybe the whole world has gone mad, except for me. I’d like to think that the latter is true. This book received acclaim from The Washington Post, The LA Times, The NY Times, The Chicago Sun Times with words like “exceptionally winning” “a high-wire performance” “the story will break your heart” “simple plot and sudden denouement” “exquisite.” So what’s not to like?

A very brief synopsis: Renee is the concierge in a building of very well to do Parisians. Although from a very humble background, she is extremely intelligent and well versed in literature, art and music. She is a widow, somewhat plump, and quite invisible as a human being to the people who populate her world. Paloma is the 12 year old precocious daughter of one of the tenants of this building. She is intelligent but hides it, and spends much of her time writing Profound Thoughts in her journal, hating her sister, and plotting to burn down her apartment and commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The issue is that the first part of the book is a philosophical drivel written with quite a bit of self-indulgence for the sole purpose of forcing the reader to understand that Renee reads Kant and Marx and understands them. The sentences are contrived and pretentious and reminded me of my first year in college when I took some philosophy courses and tried to write intelligently by using Sunday vocabulary. At the time I thought it was awesome, now I would blush in shame to read some of my 19 year old thoughts! And thus the books labors on, and on and on demonstrating to us that she is indeed superior to those people she works for, yet unable to move herself out of her modest workplace. Paloma’s writing on the other hand, is a bit more to the point, but doesn’t seem to come from a 12 year old girl – no matter how brilliant she is. And so the book plots along putting down the well to do in a way that is as snobbish and judgmental as is the viewpoint of those well to do towards “the hired help.”

At some point towards the middle of the book, a new tenant arrives to live in the building, a Japanese man named Kakuro Ozo. At this point, the storyline picks up and tends to move along, the characters begin to acquire a bit more depth and I began to feel as though I understood these characters and their torments and musings a little more. I feel like I know where the author was trying to go with this book, perhaps trying to showcase the fact that people are more than what they seem, that there is beauty in many objects, if we take the time to look, however in a stereotypical way, she characterized most of the upper class as people not worthy of being given a second look. Aside from Kakuro, ALL the tenants in the building were heartless, unfeeling, self-absorbed snobs. Hmmm… seems to me that by not taking the time to scratch beneath the surface, the author was just as much prejudiced against the upper classes as she has the upper classes come off as prejudiced against the lower class.

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Responses

  1. My colleague, I work in a library, was in absolute ecstasies over this book but a quick glance at a few Goodreads reviews and I knew it was too pretentious for my taste.

  2. Thanks for your comment. There are too many good books and too little time to spend hours and hours on something that’s not really good! If you’ve read The Help, you’ll get the same sort of issues, but in a much more human and straightforward novel.

  3. i read this for book club and loved the discussion it created. the reason i so loved the book is that many folks don’t seem to identify with the fact that the prisons each of the main characters were in were self-created. No one ever said renee was ugly except herself, paloma’s world we see only through her own eyes. the book takes us on a journey through 2 peoples very private thoughts, thoughts they would NEVER share with others. like all of us, there is our OWN perception of ourselves and the way others see us. these 2 perceptions are often never merged in real life. Renee never thought we would be eavesdropping on her thoughts and pretensions. Paloma the same. Unitl Kakuro brought them outside themselves a little and they could see themselves through others eyes. Kakuro was the reality check. He thought Renee beautifu,l I think. Flip through the book. No one ever calls Renee unattractive, but it is how she sees herself. How many of us see ourselves outside of our own preconceptions of ourselves? Even when Renee speaks of her husband, she implies he thought she was unattractive ,but again that is her take on it only – he loved her very much i think, inside and out…

    Renee and Paloma’s private worlds merely protected them from being hurt…

  4. While I do think both of these characters created a bit of their own prisons, I do think the world told them up front and straight to their faces that they were ugly people. They say that 95% of communication is non-verbal, and people hear that loud and clear throughout their lives, and some of them make the best of it, others don’t. When tenants walked right by Renee without seeing her, when they treated her like a doormat, they were telling her quite clearly that she was ugly – without ever uttering the word. Paloma on the other hand was told in many ways that she was an odd ball. When kids don’t “play” with you — because you’re tall, fat, skinny, smart, dumb — when you’re not welcome in their world, you begin to live in a world where they can’t hurt you, either by hurting them first – or by floating above them, which I think was the case of Paloma.


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